Closed shop can be good, says exec in Euro football talks

Matches like this 2013 clash between Celtic and Barcelona could become a thing of the past if the Champions League is restructured. Picture: Robert Perry
Matches like this 2013 clash between Celtic and Barcelona could become a thing of the past if the Champions League is restructured. Picture: Robert Perry
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Closing off European football competitions to elite clubs could make them far richer, according to the American sports executive who has held talks with leading English Premier League teams about a shake-up to long-established structures.

Charlie Stillitano, chairman of Relevent Sports, met with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United on Tuesday in London to discuss this year’s International Champions Cup (ICC), an annual pre-season friendly tournament that’s organised by his company.

Stillitano confirmed yesterday that they also talked about “restructuring the Champions League”, an issue high on the European Club Association agenda amid a power vacuum at Uefa.

Such a restructuring would almost certainly be bad news for Scotland and other smaller nations who would find it increasingly difficult to break into what effectively would become a closed shop. The days of Celtic, Rangers or any other Scottish club competing at the top level in Europe would be numbered.

Stillitano revealed that European football’s governing body has been keen on working with the ICC, which attracts some of the world’s wealthiest teams to compete in games across the globe for a lucrative but meaningless prize.

“We have even talked to Uefa in the past because they had an interest in our summer tournament,” Stillitano told the US satellite radio station SiriusXM. “That is something they would like to integrate into their portfolio.”

Joining forces with Relevent’s ICC would currently be incompatible with Uefa’s existing sponsorships. There are no plans with Uefa presently on the table but discussions have not been closed off.

Arsenal are the only team from Tuesday’s London talks with Stillitano to go on the record as denying they favour a breakaway Super League for Europe’s leading clubs.

Discussions within the ECA about the merits of advocating guaranteed Champions League places for prestigious teams comes at a time when Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United are all in danger of missing out on qualifying for Europe’s top competition next season.

“What would Manchester United argue: Did we create soccer or did Leicester create [it]?” said Stillitano, who met on Tuesday with the United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward. “Let’s call it the money pot created by soccer and the fandom around the world. Who has had more of an integral role, Manchester United or Leicester? It’s a wonderful, wonderful story [Leicester leading the Premier League]. But you could see it from Manchester United’s point of view too.”

If the English Premier League season ended now, eicester and Tottenham would qualify for the Champions League alongside Arsenal and Manchester City.

“Maybe that is absolutely spectacular unless you are a Manchester United fan, Liverpool fan... or a Chelsea fan,” Stillitano said.

“I guess they don’t have a birthright to be in it every year. But it’s the age-old argument: US sports franchises versus what they have in Europe. There are wonderful, wonderful, wonderful elements to relegation and promotion. And there are good arguments for a closed system.”

Stillitano believes Europe’s biggest clubs deserve to make more cash from the Champions League, given their contribution to making it such a financial success. He said fans are more likely to watch the Juventus-Bayern Munich and Arsenal-Barcelona games in the current round of 16 rather than matches involving PSV Eindhoven and Ghent.

“This is going to sound arrogant and it’s the furthest thing from it ... but suddenly when you see the teams we have this summer in the ICC you are going to shake your head and say, ‘Isn’t that the Champions League?’ ” Stillitano said. “No, the Champions League is PSV and Ghent.”